“They fought together, despite their differences. Together. We need to do the same if we’re going to survive. Because the enemy’s real. It’s always been real.”
As Game of Thrones moves ever-closer to its conclusion, the narrative pace seems to be massively accelerating in this shorter, penultimate season. Gone are the days when you could reasonably predict a season’s structure; that there’d be an impressive battle by episode four or so, then much political machination leading to events of great magnitude in episode nine, followed by one ep of picking up the pieces. We’ve only just got through four episodes, and we’ve had an epic naval battle, followed by the seizing of both Casterly Rock and Highgarden, and now the devastating first deployment of a dragon just outside King’s Landing.
The furious pace of events can sometimes seem rather overwhelming. But even in the midst of all this, the show’s still managed to fit in plenty of those quiet, character-driven scenes that add soul to all the blood and thunder. Arya Stark’s long journey back home has been full of them; her encounter with her old direwolf, her chat with a genial bunch of Lannister infantrymen, her reunion with the long-unseen Hot Pie.
And so it was that, in a week dominated by dragonfire, it was Arya’s final return to Winterfell that moved me the most. After that comical encounter with two foul-mouthed Shakespeare-esque guards whose skill doesn’t fill you with confidence about the Northmen’s struggle to come, it was the look on Maisie Williams’ face as she took in her surroundings that really sold the moment. Remember, she hasn’t seen her home since way back in season one, when she accompanied Ned Stark on his fateful journey south.
Her reunions with her siblings were beautifully portrayed too. From Sansa’s smiled, “I know where she is” to that whole exchange under a badly carved likeness of Sean Bean, it was genuinely moving to see the sisters reunited. I’d imagine there might be more than just acting involved – consider that the actors too have been separated since season one. Their fierce hug felt truly convincing as a reunion of long-separated family.
The reunion with Bran was less moving, though Arya’s wordless hug on first seeing him was very sweet. Thing is, as highlighted in a couple of scenes this week, he’s not really Bran Stark any more – “I remember how it felt to be Brandon Stark. But now I remember so much else too”. He’s a combination of Vulcan-like calm and Merlin-like visions, emotionlessly recounting how he tracked Arya’s journey from afar.
Baelish too found himself unnerved by the new Yoda-Bran, when the boy recited one of his own previous utterances to him – “chaos is a ladder”. It was a satisfying moment to see Littlefinger so discomfited – it’s not something that happens often. But the dagger he gave Bran seems to have taken on a lot of plot significance. I thought, back in season one, that the attempt on Bran’s life had been made at the urging of Cersei, or perhaps as a scheme by Littlefinger himself; after all, as he pointed out, that act effectively started the War of the Five Kings.
But it seems the one behind that act has still to be revealed, and the dagger’s emergence as a vital plot point after nearly seven seasons must be significant. After last week’s revelation by Olenna that it was she who poisoned the vile Joffrey, it seems as though this season is addressing vital plot points many of us had forgotten. I’m now wondering if it will indeed turn out to be Petyr Baelish who hired the assassin, precisely to start the war; after all, “chaos is a ladder”. If that turns out to be the case, I don’t think he’ll retain his privileged position at Winterfell for long.
Bran’s plotline has taken a decidedly mystical turn since his first encounter with the original Three-Eyed raven, and that mysticism was shared with the Jon/Dany scenes this week as they went off spelunking together. The cave paintings in the dragonglass mine usefully filled in more of the backstory for the enemy they’re facing; we now know that the Children of the Forest combined with the First Men to fight off the White Walkers. And of course Bran knows that it was the Children who created the White Walkers in the first place, then very much regretted it. If he and Jon can pool their information, they might be getting an improved chance in the war to come.
Even Dany looked convinced by the cave paintings. Emilia Clarke showed a sense of wonder at the revelations, marvelling in that feeling you can get of touching the past when you stand in the same place as someone from centuries or millennia before while seeing what they saw. For a moment, all her imperial haughtiness seemed forgotten… until her promise to aid Jon was given with the caveat, “as soon as you bend the knee”.
It’s clear that her intransigence on the ‘King in the North’ is not going to be easily swayed, and it’s equally clear that even Jon, the most aware of the dire circumstances facing all humanity if differences aren’t put aside, has too much Northman’s pride to relinquish the title. It seems like childish stubbornness in the face of the threat they’re facing, yet it’s totally consistent with the characters as they’ve developed over these last seven years. If this was a rom-com, I’d be convinced they’d get together by the time the credits roll; and it seems Ser Davos agrees with me.
But of course it’s about as far from a rom-com as you can get, something amply demonstrated by this week’s blood-and-fire filled Epic Battle, that took up the last quarter of the ep. This is the first time we’ve actually seen a dragon used in combat, and it more than lived up to the buildups previously given. The whole furious scene felt like a conglomerate of several wars from real history – the Sioux storming General Custer, the English charge against William Wallace, and even the aerial strafing of road convoys from World War One. That is, if the biplanes had been equipped with nuclear-powered flamethrowers.
But here again, the scene worked so well precisely because we had sympathies with characters on both sides. It was marvellous to see Bronn again, dispensing his usual earthy wisdom (“Men shit themselves when they die, didn’t they teach you that in fancy lad school?”). But it also meant you didn’t know who to root for as he deployed Qyburn’s Acme Mega-Crossbow (yes, it does seem like something Wile E Coyote might use). Bronn’s likeable, but on the ‘wrong side’ as far as the viewer’s concerned. But then, which is the ‘right’ side? It was a point subtly made in Jaime’s discussion with the naïve Dickon Tarly, and thankfully not hammered home.
Where Jaime is concerned it looked like Tyrion had conflicted loyalties too. He may hate his sister, but his brother obviously is still his weak spot where the Lannisters are concerned. Likely, any resounding Lannister defeat will involve Jaime’s death, as he’ll stand fast to the death, even in the knowledge that he too is on the ‘wrong side’. But for all his flaws, Jaime is a likeable character, so much so that I found myself nodding in agreement as the watching Tyrion muttered, “flee, you fool!” As if Jaime ever would. He’s one of the characters I thought would be safe right up to the end (at which point he’d probably go out in a blaze of glory). But as of this week, we don’t even know if he’s alive.
Sex and violence
Well, absolutely none of the former. Though the script seems to be trying to convince us that there’s some kind of sexual tension between Jon and Dany, it’s not been particularly evident. Though Dany at least reverted back to a gossiping schoolgirl in her attempts to pry out of Missandei exactly what happened between her and Grey Worm.
Violence, though, there was oodles of. It pretty much all came in that last quarter hour, which showcased this show’s abilities to continually present medieval-style battles in new ways. We are, of course, much accustomed to the show’s staple of hacking and slashing with bladed weapons, which this week even caught up with Bronn’s unfortunate horse:
And we’ve seen before the brutal incinerations Dany’s dragons can inflict, though never before in battle:
Combining these two factors, and plunging us into the heart of the battle along with Bronn and Jaime, made for a thrilling if terrifying sequence. The Battle of the Bastards was brutal, and so was this, but in a different way. The chaos was similar, but the repeated shots of screaming men in flames charging blindly through the carnage was something new.
So yes, another ep, and another battle. The dragon-induced carnage is likely to dominate most people’s memory of this ep, and it was spectacular; but as ever, it worked because you cared about the characters, and they could be seen doing plenty of things that were less immediately lethal. On the strategic front, I wonder what Dany is actually trying to accomplish – Tyrion’s proposed blockade of King’s Landing perhaps, as the battle took place right outside its very gates. But if she was hoping to deprive Cersei of Highgarden’s recently-appropriated gold, she was too late – Randyll Tarly said it was already inside.
Nevertheless, a dragon (even an injured one) alongside a horde of Dothraki right outside the Capital looks pretty devastating propaganda-wise. And if Tycho Nesteris (Mark Gatiss playing Mark Gatiss) can’t get out to repay the Iron Bank’s gold, there could be hell to pay. Last week, it looked like Cersei was on the ascendant; this week she’s looking a lot more uncertain.